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Sean Carroll

Thanksgiving

24 Nov 2017, 02:04 UTC
Thanksgiving
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

This year we give thanks for a simple but profound principle of statistical mechanics that extends the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics: the Jarzynski Equality. (We’ve previously given thanks for the Standard Model Lagrangian, Hubble’s Law, the Spin-Statistics Theorem, conservation of momentum, effective field theory, the error bar, gauge symmetry, Landauer’s Principle, the Fourier Transform, Riemannian Geometry, and the speed of light.)
The Second Law says that entropy increases in closed systems. But really it says that entropy usually increases; thermodynamics is the limit of statistical mechanics, and in the real world there can be rare but inevitable fluctuations around the typical behavior. The Jarzynski Equality is a way of quantifying such fluctuations, which is increasingly important in the modern world of nanoscale science and biophysics.
Our story begins, as so many thermodynamic tales tend to do, with manipulating a piston containing a certain amount of gas. The gas is of course made of a number of jiggling particles (atoms and molecules). All of those jiggling particles contain energy, and we call the total amount of that energy the internal energy U of the gas. Let’s imagine the whole thing is embedded in an environment (a “heat bath”) at temperature ...

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